Amazon vs. Publishing 3: Authors Guild Weighs in

 

The Authors Guild, the largest advocacy organization for authors in America, weighed in on the Amazon-MacMillan affair yesterday. Their position is, I believe, a fair and balanced position on the interests of authors as it relates to the controversy. In a rare show of solidarity, Author’s Guild has given unqualified support to the position of large publishing.   Authors Guild linked to another article by Fast Company that is a little less nuanced but probably a little more articulate of what this fight really means.

Their statement addressed a point that is worth considering relating to the long-term interests of authors on this issue. Amazon pulled the plug on Macmillan Books without notifying Macmillan or its authors. This was done on Thursday, January 28. On Sunday, January 31, Amazon made a smarmy statement characterizing Macmillan as having a “monopoly” on their books and insinuating that they were going to lose the battle. We all assumed they were conceding. As of this morning at 8:30 PST, the buttons have not been replaced on Macmillan titles. This is becoming a real problem for Macmillan authors who rely on Amazon to sell 75% of all sales on their book on-line.

Clearly Amazon is throwing its weight around and continuing to send the message to publishers that they, like the Wall Street banks, are “too big to fail”; or, at least, too big to cross. Their position is arrogant and points out eloquently the correctness of the concerns of publishers, authors, and agents that Amazon has  asymmetric market power that has become a danger to our industry. It is Amazon, not the commercial publishers, who are seeking to establish a monopoly.

 This is not the first time Amazon has removed buttons from titles, but it is the first time they have done it with all titles of a publisher.

This affair is not a tiff between quarrelling parties. It is really a struggle for the future of book publishing. Stay tuned.

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12 Responses to “Amazon vs. Publishing 3: Authors Guild Weighs in”

  1. Patricia Says:

    Hi Andy,

    My thoughts on this are somewhat different than yours and the Authors Guild.

    While what Amazon did was high-handed and detrimental in the short term for any author who has published with MacMillan, there is another way to view this:

    For starters, ebooks do not have to be the death knoll to retail booksellers or big profits to big publishing, if they would only look at this less myopically.

    Whenever there is a sea change in an industry, there are those who panic, thinking that their livelihood is at stake, and that is because they are used to doing business only one way for decades and cannot see how they can change their business model to incorporate new technologies. Let’s go back to the time that Clint Eastwood and others Hollywood A-listers made a case in court, trying to put a stop to sales of films on videocassette. The argument then was that the film industry would lose money and theaters would cease to exist. Neither happened, and now with digital film and independent film makers being able to produce almost professional quality films on their Mac computers, there will be another adjustment for LA. In fact this change is breathing new life into local theaters with ‘Tuesday Evening Film Festivals” On a night when theaters are traditionally either ‘black’ or have such low sales it doesn’t pay to keep the lights switched on, young filmmakers are using their local theaters to show their work – with half the take going to the theater and half to the young filmmakers. It doesn’t hurt Hollywood any, and gives new talent a chance to get their work seen.

    There are several ways I can think of just off the top of my head, where the Big Six can incorporate inexpensive ebook sales and ‘vooks’ into their business model. But apart from that, smaller publishers and less known authors thrive on amazon. I know of one author in particular who made his name on the internet, was then contracted by one of the six and his work was then brought to the retail bookseller. All because of amazon. Smaller publishers too are willing to work with local booksellers (or should be) by giving them higher percentages, better terms, including consignment deals and local authors who publish independently, if they are at all savvy, can bring lots of money to their local retailer. However, they must get their name out there before this can happen and the internet and amazon help tremendously with that.

    For years big publishing has had a stranglehold, and it has hurt the smaller retailers, not helped them. Smaller retailers have to take what they can get from big publishing if they want to carry the latest releases. TBecause of the way the industry is currently set up, their costs to carry a new release is much higher than a chain. This is the publishing industry’s model and amazon has taken advantage of it. The model has to change and publishers can be forced to do that if they get some competition. It has hurt authors signed and unsigned, also. That might be considered noble by some if their purpose was to deliver a quality product (giving us books that are good for us, whether we like it or not) but I don’t have to give examples of some of the trash published to state that that is not their purpose any longer. It might have been before big corps bought publishing, but certainly not now. This is one reason why independents are beginning to take hold of the a portion of the market- people who read are actually a lot more sophisticated and intelligent than the industry gives them credit for. We might also watch reality TV, but that doesn’t mean we want a steady diet of it, and in our literature no less. But if the Big Six won’t take on a new author because they can’;t get a film deal out of their work, a POD publisher will or an author can even self-publish today with not to much trouble. Amazon does not care if those sales are only in the hundreds or low thousands. A sale is a sale. And there is money to be made by MacMillan and the rest if they’d stop feeling so threatened.

    By the way,(here comes the plug) I do plan to discuss this during my talk at The San Francisco Writers Conference how not only writers, but publishers, agents, and retail booksellers can use the ebook, e-readers ,and online book selling, as a way to add to their bottom line.

    And for anybody reading this who thinks I’m ‘dissing’ Andy, I just want you to know that I respect him very much, and he gave me permission to post my point of view here!

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Patrica is a terrific author and teacher. We have all learned a lot from her understanding of how to market books. She’s the author of Harlot’s Sauce and knows how to make self-publishing work.

      Patricia raises some good points here, but I think they are misdirected. The issue isn’t whether self-publishing is good (it is). It isn’t whether Amazon has helped or hindered this (they have helped). It isn’t whether e-books are good or bad for authors (they are happening, so get used to it).

      This issue is really about market power and whether Amazon should have a virtual monopoly on the distribution of e-books. In my opinion this is dangerous for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that their market power gives them the ability to banish books from the marketplace as they have done with the Macmillan titles. That is why the publishers are seeking to reign them in. And that is why it is in the interest of authors, big and small, to stand with the commercial publishers, the Authors Guild, and the Association of Authors Representatives in trying to get some healthy competition going. Most importantly, that is why anyone concerned with free speech should understand that Amazon’s recent action is censorship, pure and simple…. See More

      Amazon is clearly trying to establish a new standard price for e-books of $9.95. They are doing it as loss leaders today. But this is not sustainable. Ultimately they will pressure publishers to lower their prices to reflect the reality of the market. Selling books at a loss is not in the interest of publishers, authors, and the reading public.

      Patricia says some very true things about the flaws of commercial publishing today and the virtues of self-publishing, but that debate is not germaine to this issue.

  2. Laura Hoopes Says:

    I received a Kindle over the holidays and I’ve been trying to get Wolf Hall since this fight brewed up, to no avail. It’s still not available in US on Tuesday night. If the Amazonians have capitulated, where are the buy buttons? It does look like a power play with a flavor of sour grapes to me. I think Amazon is resisting partly because Apple made the deal Macmillan wants to have them accept. Amazon doesn’t want the deal, they want to set the prices all the same. But they might as well prepare to follow Jobs down the road, it will come if Apple has agreed to it.
    I don’t think Kindle will have this monopoly for long; the infelicitously named iPAD is only one competitor. There’s the Sony Reader, the Nook, etc. THey need to climb a hill, check the vista ahead, and back down gracefully. I think letting the price actually make something if sold electronically is better for all in the end. I am not going to buy a new Kindle every year, forget it. So sell me something you don’t lose money on! As an author, I hate the idea of books being schlepped out the door at a loss. So I think the Authors’ Guild and Mac have it right. Go Andy!
    Cheers,
    Laura Hoopes

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Laura. It’s Tues night and the buy bottons still aren’t back on. If it was Satanic Verses instead of Wolf Hall, a lot of people would be pretty angry. BTW, (Wolf Hall is kind of boring, but you didn’t hear it from me).

  3. Directors Guild Awards 2010 On Twitter | Tech News Says:

    […] Amazon vs. Publishing 3: Authors Guild Weighs in « Ask the Agent […]

  4. Tamara Sellman for Writer's Rainbow Says:

    The Author’s Guild shouldn’t so quickly jump into bed with the Big Houses. What about authors? What do they get in all this? A choice between two different kinds of vultures out to pick their bones, I say.

    See: One response to the Author’s Guild regarding Macmillan v Amazon

    http://writersrainbow.wordpress.com/2010/02/03/one-response-to-the-authors-guild-regarding-macmillan-v-amazon/

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Tamara,

      Right now virtually every Macmillan author has had their buy button removed from Amazon. This has been going on now for about a week.

      In 1989, Barnes and Noble removed every copy of the Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie from their stores nationwide. Authors weren’t happy. They boycotted BN and launched protests and picket lines.

      Authors shouldn’t become pawns in the hands of book retailers to be used to exact better terms from publishers.

  5. Tamara Sellman for Writer's Rainbow Says:

    Hi Andy,

    You didn’t sign your post so I’m not sure if you’re Andy Ross, but I’ll call you Andy because this is a friendly conversation.🙂

    I agree… authors shouldn’t become pawns, not at the hands of retailers, but neither at the hands of Big Publishing as they struggle to keep the industry from tanking. No, this isn’t The Economy at work, it’s the state of the publishing world for 30+ years come home to roost.

    Yes, I’m well aware of the button removals, I count several friends among those authors. I don’t wish them ill, but I do take issue with the idea that somehow Big Publishing is now and suddenly the darling of authors.

    What are authors going to get from Macmillan if Amazon gives them their buttons back? More royalties? More opportunities for new voices to be heard? More leverage negotiating for rights? I doubt it. It’ll go back to business as usual.

    Let me preface this by saying I’m a strong supporter of independent booksellers, small presses and electronic publishing. I have long felt that the business model for Big Publishing is antiquated, that these other residents of the industry are more inclined and motivated than Big Publishing to preserve the diversity of new voices and ideas in American literature.

    So I’m going to be biased.

    I’m a professional independent editor and writing coach (and former web publisher), and in the course of my work, I see fine, publishable manuscripts get the boot because Big Publishing seems intent upon keeping their bottom line ahead of the needs of readers (for diversity) and writers (who must conform to their antiquated business model or perish).

    This, to me, is equally egregious.

    I “get” the general economics, but the resistance that publishing has long held against new technologies and internet marketing just leaves me cold.

    Listen, Amazon may be brazen but at least they don’t stake the claim that they have authors’ interests at heart. They are a retailer; that’s what they do. Who is surprised by their tactics? Not me.

    I’m no overt fan of Amazon; I prefer my IndieBound brick and mortar retailer over all others. But this play by Macmillan to present their image as the writers’ savior against Amazon’s dark horse image tactics is an artificial polarity.

    Or, the dance of two different kinds of vultures.

    Writers, let us not be distracted.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Yep, Tamara, this is Andy and you can call me Andy.

      I agree with most of what you say. But a lot of those issues are not germaine to my post. Do writers get good enough royalties? No. Are publishers publishing the best books? Not always. Are independent stores in danger? Yes. Although in th

      But I was writing about the dangers of giving Amazon a monopoly on distribution of e-books. And their pulling the plug is simply an indicator of how dangerous this is. The Authors Guild is the largest authors’ organization in the country and do a pretty good job representing the interests of authors. You can click on their link on my blog page. Their position on this is pretty clear and convincing to me.

  6. Tamara Sellman for Writer's Rainbow Says:

    Hey Andy, looks like some of your message was cut off…

    I guess I see my comments as germaine because I think Big Publishing has become so consolidated that I really don’t see the industry as operating all that differently from a monopoly. (Newspapers are the same way.)

    Think of it from a writer’s standpoint; if Big Publishing won’t publish their work (and I’m talking about qualified candidates for publication), then what other options do they have? New writers, in particular, are hamstrung by the system as it stands now.

    This puts writers in that same victim role that Macmillan is protesting right now. (Which is just a shame because so many people who work inside publishing really do care about literature.)

    So… Amazon is to Macmillan what Big Publishing is to writers? Maybe…

    Amazon’s not the only way to sell e-books, though it certainly has become the main way. But whose fault is that? They’ve been building that marketing strategy for years now. Publishers might have stepped in earlier and with more resolve to prevent Amazon’s empire-building, but they (like a lot of other industries) didn’t really take Amazon seriously back then. Now we do, indeed, have this leviathan known as The World’s Biggest Bookstore, but only because they actively fed an undernourished niche while we weren’t looking.

    To me (and I’m betting you’ll agree), the real challenge for publishers comes in educating readers about their options when buying books (and in promoting reading, period!). I regularly buy direct or via IndieBound booksellers when I can (and I must confess to owning an e-book reader🙂 ), but most people don’t even think to move beyond Amazon. It really is that kneejerk.

    I have read the Authors Guild’s position and agree with a lot of their points but I still feel like Macmillan’s move is more a tactic to swing public opinion in their direction and to gather sympathy while obscuring the fact that the publishing industry hasn’t found a way to match Amazon’s shrewd business acumen. I wish this would change.

    And I really don’t see the publishing industry as the writer’s best advocate, not like it used to be (though, to be fair, some houses are certainly better than others, and by no means do I wish to single out Macmillan… after all, they have published a lot of my friends!), so I’m a little disturbed that the Author’s Guild would be so quick to show it favor. By doing so, they are putting their stamp of approval on an industry which ultimately gave the AG their raison d’etre in the first place.

    We’ll see how it goes… I think this is a good standoff, one that’s a bit overdue, but worth the battle. Overdue because there are so many outstanding questions and concerns that need definition for everyone involved. Sometimes, in the middle of robust and dynamic change, the standoff is the only way to move past the conflict, however uncomfortable it makes us all.

    From the outcome of this and other subsequent challenges (I’m sure this is only the beginning) it will be far more easy to determine what/who matters most of all in this shakedown: Will it be readers? writers? publishers? Amazon?

    Who knows. I’d like to know whether all my time spent as a writer has been in vain. My own clients are exhausted by the complexity of publishing when they realize that just writing the best novel they can is not enough (I teach platform development for this reason). Some clarity in the business would be of benefit to everyone in publishing, from the writer to the agent to the editor and beyond.

    It’s going to be an interesting year, of this, I’m certain!

    Hey, I’ve subscribed to your blog and will continue to read along. More than anything else I thank you for opening the dialog.

    Best wishes
    Tamara
    http://www.writersrainbow.com

    • andyrossagency Says:

      uhhh. Tamara. I sort of agree with a lot of what you are saying. I used to own an independent store, and I’m glad you support them. Of course, Amazon is really doing them in. But that is for another blog.

      • andyrossagency Says:

        Alan. Thanks for weighing in. And while you are here, I want to tell you how much I loved Molokai. I cried all weekend when I read it. And then I recommended it to many hundreds of Cody’s customers, all of whom thanked me. And I loved Honolulu too, but didn’t cry all weekend.

        I think most authors are pretty angry about all this. But I know that Macmillan authors are very angry. A lot of them have been having reviews and interviews. This has been pretty tough. I think Amazon has been milking it all by arguing that they are just trying to help the consumer. Let’s hope the affair will be over soon.

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